By Cole Kinder
It was the first match ever of European group stage club football for Bosnia and Herzegovina and right away it showed!
HŠK Zrinjski Mostar found themselves down 0-3 to last season’s Conference League semi-finalists and Dutch Eredivisie fourth place club, AZ Alkmaar.
The goals came in the 10th, 32nd, and 44th minutes.
Everyone at this point thought it was going to be a very forgettable night for the Croatian-Herzegovian club and the defending Bosnia and Herzegovina League and Cup champions.
However, the Stadion pod Bijelim Brijegom stayed packed for Zrinjski, hoping that their favorite club could tap into the national team heroics of the country less than an hour west of them.
And these fans were awarded right away!
Zrinjski drew a foul in the 47th minute about midway between the half-way line and the box, on their attacking left side.
The man who came to take the free kick was none other than recently signed, Zvonimir Kožulj, who had just come on at halftime. This is a man who has played for historic Croatian clubs in Croatia and Herzegovina such as Hajduk Split and Široki Brijeg, and now is donning the famous shirt of Zrinjski.
The 39 year old chose to kick the ball with his right foot with lots of power at goal, and the ball got past the AZ keeper as it bounced near post and into the net! The Bosnia and Herzegovina international scored the first European club football group stage goal in his nations’ history!
But, the job was not done yet. Zrinjski did not qualify for the UEFA Europa Conference League to lose!
After a series of passes circumnavigated the attacking zone just outside of the box going from side to side, Josip Ćorluka finally got the ball on the right wing. After taking on his defender in a one-on-one situation, Ćorluka decided to take a shot at goal from just outside the box on the top right corner with his left foot. As the ball went toward goal, it became evident that Ćorluka had made a perfect strike as the ball curled into the top left corner of the goal, going just over the outstretched hand of the AZ goalkeeper, and then struck the net for another Zrinjski goal in the 68th minute! Zrinjski were now down 2-3 after two world class goals.
But, just barely 20 minutes remained! There was surely no way a club from Bosnia and Herzegovina could come back down by 3 to a top club in one of the world’s best leagues!
And that is when Zrinsjksi decided they needed another sub. The 25 year old 2023 summer signing, Aldin Hrvanović, came on, a man who came from the city of the salt lake, Tuzla, in the heart of Bosnia.
The next minute saw the Vienna-born Croatian-Austrian goalkeeper, Marko Marić, restart play with a big boot that sailed past the half-way line. As there was a tuscle for the ball, it fell to Zagreb-born Matija Malekinušić in the center of the attacking zone. Malekinušić kicked it with the outside of his right boot up to the Tuzla-born substitute, and Hrvanović controlled the ball with his chest, gently letting the ball fall to the ground bouncing twice, before striking the ball with his right foot from just outside of the box to the left side of the goal, getting it past the AZ goalkeeper and into the net for Zrinjski’s third goal of the night! Zrinjski were now tied 3-3!
Yet, Zrinjski still had gas (or electricity for you Rimac and Tesla drivers) left in the tank. They needed one more goal and had brought on 2018 world runner-up, the Split-born midfielder Filip Bradarić.
In the 81st minute, another long kick by Marko Marić found the attacking zone, and another tuscle landed at the feet of Zagreb-born Tomislav Kiš, who would make a cut back on his defender, passing the ball up into the box for Malekinušić, who then shot at goal, hitting off the left side post! But, swooping in right away was the Ljubuški-born Man of the Match, Zvonimir Kožulj, who shot first touch on the rebound with his right foot booting it past the last AZ defender guarding the near post! Kožulj’s shot went into the net! Zrinjski had completed the comeback, now leading 4-3!
In the 6th minute of added time, AZ had one last shot, saved by Marko Marić. 30 seconds later, the ref blew for full-time as the ball crossed the half-way line on a desperation punt by the AZ goalkeeper!
The Croatian-Herzegovinian club from Mostar had made history once again, winning their and their country’s first, European club football group stage match!
This match was notable for many reasons, but especially because it signals the growth of Bosnia and Herzegovina club football as the league finally got its first group stage win in European competition, and not over a small club, rather, over a very good club from the Netherlands.
Furthermore, the heart of Zrinjski showed the true Croatian spirit of fighting until the final whistle! It did not matter that the score was 0-3, what mattered was that 45 minutes remained.
Another notable feature has to be the role Ljubuški played in this match. If anyone knows about Bosnia and Herzegovina sports, you probably associate this border town with another sport, handball. Local club RK Izviđač have been the best club in two nations, winning 7 Herceg-Bosnia league championships and 8 Bosnia and Herzegovina league championships, among many other notable trophies from cup competitions! Yet on Thursday, Ljubuški was no longer only a Croatian-Herzegovinian town known for rukometni, but now football legend Zvonimir Kožulj has placed Ljubuški into the Bosnia and Herzegovina nogometni history books too!
And not to harp on hometowns, but Zrinjski truly used the diaspora with players from Vienna, Tuzla, and all over including Zagreb and Split. It may have been a Mostar achievement, but it felt like an achievement for all Croatians, Bosnians, and Herzegovinians as well! It was a night for the two nations and all its people around the world to celebrate because together, they have reached a goal previously impossible!
The road does not get easier, but at least it will not be as up-hill as experts thought.